Friday, July 30, 2010

Bears Will Be Bears

Early Wednesday morning, a mother grizzly bear with three cubs attacked a sleeping camper at a campground near Yellowstone National Park, dragged him 25 feet from his tent and mauled him to death. The bears then attacked campers in two other tents, injuring but not killing them. Wildlife officials said the attacks were surprising because none of the campers had any food inside their tents.

The sow was euthanized today after DNA testing proved that she was the bear who had attacked the campers. An autopsy will be performed to determine if there was a medical reason for her unusual actions as bears normally do not commit unprovoked attacks on humans. The fate of her cubs has not yet been decided, but some fear that their mother has taught them predatory behaviors. Grizzly bear mothers spend up to 3½ years showing their cubs where and how to obtain food. They are highly intelligent animals whose ability to form mental maps and remember locations may exceed that of humans. The lives of these cubs may be spared if a zoo will accept them because they are very young.

While I feel terrible for the loss of life in this incident, the fact remains that we humans are encroaching on territory which has always belonged to other animals. And as we develop more and more of those lands, we leave them with less and less area in which to find their food and to live comfortably.

I have always cringed at the arrogance that places us at the pinnacle of Creation with the implicit entitlement to control and destroy all other creatures as we please. Animal species including ours are interdependent to an extent which our "modern" culture has largely forgotten; what hurts non-human animals ultimately hurts us, too. All creatures play a role upon which all other creatures depend, whether or not we are aware of it.

I think that these particular bears must have been desperate for food to attack humans because bears are predominantly vegetarian. Executing them is just another attempt to reassure ourselves that we are still in control, despite all evidence to the contrary. Sometimes I think that like Pooh, we are Bears of Very Little Brain.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

No Forgiveness Possible

Mark David Chapman, who murdered John Lennon on December 8, 1980, is up for parole in early August. He will be interviewed by a three-member parole board panel for the sixth time. He was originally given a sentence of 20 years-to-life for his crime, and is allowed to apply for parole every two years since he became eligible for release in 2000.

Yoko Ono, John Lennon's widow, music partner, soul mate and the mother of his younger son, Sean, has consistently opposed Chapman's parole on the ground that she and his two sons would not feel safe for the rest of their lives. She also makes the valid point that Chapman, himself, would be in danger since he killed one of the most beloved figures in the world. In fact, he has been incarcerated in a special unit apart from Attica Prison's general population since he began serving his sentence.

The board denied Chapman's last request for parole in 2008, citing the massive impact of his crime. "Your conduct thus precipitated a horrendously tragic event which has impacted many individuals," the board wrote. "Your discretionary release at this time would thus not be compatible with the welfare of society at large, and would tend to deprecate the seriousness of the instant offense, and undermine respect for the law."

It is unthinkable that this man should ever be free again. He shot John Lennon at close range as John and Yoko returned home from a recording session, and Yoko has been forced to live with these gruesome memories for nearly thirty years. John's sons Julian and Sean have had to grow up without their father, and the world has been deprived of the music and wisdom John would surely have produced if he had been allowed to enjoy a normal life span.

Chapman is now 55 years of age, while John Lennon would have been 70 this October.

Please sign this petition asking the NY Parole Board to deny Chapman's release.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Vigilantes, Go Home

Things have gotten a tad dicey in Arizona.

Governor Jan Brewer signed a controversial new immigration law in April which allows police to question a person's immigration status if they suspect someone is in the country illegally. The Minutemen Movement patrols the desert on foot, horseback and in airplanes, reporting suspicious activity to the Border Patrol, which has more agents than ever.

And now Jason "J.T." Ready, an ex-Marine with ties to the National Socialist Movement, has declared his own war on "narco-terrorists." The NSM is a neo-Nazi organization that believes only non-Jewish, white heterosexuals should be American citizens and that all non-whites should leave the country, "peacefully or by force." He and his group wear military fatigues, body armor and gas masks and are heavily armed with both assault rifles and the conviction that they are operating in service to God and country, which history has shown is a most dangerous combination.

"We're not going to sit around and wait for the government anymore," Ready said. "This is what our founding fathers did." It's hard to picture George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in powdered wigs with swastikas on their sleeves. Law enforcement officials say that such patrols undermine the work of officers on duty along the border, especially if they try to enforce the law themselves by vigilante "justice." This can only end badly.

The people who came to America, and in many instances brutally displaced the Native Americans, viewed these shores as a place of refuge from persecution, poverty, and a lack of opportunity to pursue success. The United States seems to be suffering a schism of identity in which we still pride ourselves on being a free country which welcomes immigrants while we also strive to keep them out.

The Statue of Liberty welcomes people to New York Harbor with these words engraved on her base: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door." Her upraised torch is a symbol of enlightenment, showing the path to Liberty. She is not in Arizona.

If we no longer believe in the concept symbolized by this statue, perhaps we should dismantle it and return it to France, which gave it to America in 1885 to celebrate the friendship between the two countries and a shared reverence for freedom. But if we fail to control vigilante activity wherever it exists, a statue of Hitler might take her place.

Friday, July 09, 2010

What About Cars for Seeing Eye Dogs?

This week, the National Federation of the Blind and Virginia Tech demonstrated a prototype vehicle equipped with technology to allow a blind person to operate a car independently. The technology, called "nonvisual interfaces," uses sensors to let a blind driver maneuver a car based on information transmitted to him about his surroundings: whether another car or object is nearby, in front of him or in a neighboring lane.

My first reaction was frankly, skeptical. With all respect, there are already too many seemingly blind people driving in San Francisco. But it's an intriguing idea. Louis Braille opened worlds to the blind in the early 1800's because he desperately wanted to read. The arrangement of raised dots he invented has been adapted to nearly every language on earth. Perhaps no disability is as limiting as we generally assume.

Advocates for the blind consider the invention of such a vehicle a "moon shot." President Kennedy, who urged America to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth, would surely agree. He said, "We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask 'why not?'..."

Licenses requiring eyeglasses could become obsolete. And the words, "Waddya, blind?" so beloved of New Yorkers, could lose their impact along with brandishing middle fingers at other drivers who can't see them. Big changes, people. Big changes coming.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Armed Robbery with Special Circumstances

The latest candidate for Mother of the Year is Ethel Mae Nelson of Newberry, SC, who took her 7-year old daughter along while she held up a gas station at knifepoint. The clerk gave her about $300 and she fled with the money and the child. Soon after, a deputy spotted her in a taxi and apprehended her. She tried to run away, leaving the child behind, and broke her leg in the process.

She has been charged with armed robbery, possession of a weapon and unlawful conduct toward a child.

Ms. Nelson is hospitalized and her daughter has been placed in state custody. It's really rough when you need to commit a crime but can't afford a baby sitter. There oughta be a law.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Dick and Jane Do a Museum - See Dick Run

Claude Monet: "The Seine at Vetheuil"

Yesterday, we went to the de Young Art Museum in Golden Gate Park to see an exhibit called "The Birth of Impressionism," which is on loan from the Musee d' Orsay in Paris. Some of the paintings and I were old friends who hadn't seen each other in half a lifetime. I was thrumming with excitement at the thought of seeing them again.

The lines were obscenely long and slow moving and snaked around extensive real estate like endless airport security queues. We weren't even allowed to get in line for an hour after our arrival - I'm sure security requires that they let in only as many people as they can monitor - so we killed time in the gift shop. Flip got an overpriced tee shirt and I looked in vain for postcards of the exhibit. As soon as we got on the line, Flip decided he'd had enough and wanted to go home. He held up his bag with the tee shirt and said, "Let's just take this and go."

I explained that we had already paid to see the exhibit and I really, really wanted to see it. He persisted. I explained again. He got more and more upset with the lines and chattering people but each time the line moved a little, I told him with false cheer that we were nearly there now.

"Where are we going?" he asked. "We're in a museum," I said. I told him that the canvasses had arrived clandestinely in huge moisture-controlled crates unlabeled or marked "croissants," accompanied by security details in unmarked cars between airport and museum. They were unopened for 48 hours so they could acclimate to their new home. "Let's just go," he said. My happy mood floated away like a liberated balloon.

Edgar Degas: "The Dancing Lesson"

I often took my children to the Metropolitan in NYC when they were toddlers, and they adored such outings. "This is bullshit," Flip said. "I want to go home." The "real" Flip was an art lover. Apparently, Alzheimer's Flip is not.

"I'm sorry, but I'd really like to see it." I thought of ways to kill myself. Every time the line moved a foot, I cited this as evidence that we were nearly there. The Art Dodger wasn't having any of it. I wondered if hemlock was painful. After more than an hour, we entered the exalted space with paintings by Renoir, Degas, Monet, Manet, Sisley, Cezanne, Pissarro, Morisot and other artists, and it did not disappoint.

Flip went into near-cardiac arrest when he saw "Whistler's Mother," which is huge. It is always a shock to stand in front of the actual canvas an artist worked on, close enough to touch it if security weren't watching ones every move, especially when the work is one that has been reproduced millions of times. To me, this is as thrilling as if the artists themselves were standing before me, reaching out in greeting across the years.

James McNeill Whistler: "Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother"

In late September, the de Young will host a second show, "Post-Impressionist Masterpieces From the Musée d'Orsay" featuring works of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, Rousseau and Toulouse-Lautrec. The Musee d' Orsay is undergoing extensive renovations which would have required storing about 250 paintings. Instead, they decided to mount two touring exhibits, but the de Young in San Francisco is the only museum in the world which will host both collections. This particular combination of paintings will never travel again.

Transportation costs are over $1 million for each exhibit, while insurance exceeds $1 billion each. "Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother," by James McNeill Whistler, was required by the d'Orsay to travel in an unmarked plywood crate with a pine base and protective coat of varnish, face up, cushioned by shims for spacing and foam of varying density to soften vibrations. Gloved technicians removed her from her crate and hung her on a wall with hooks strong enough to hold a car. The contract between the d'Orsay and the de Young specifies that all crates remain inside the museum, a stipulation intended to guard against vermin.

Today, I am going to visit my favorite art supply store and see which medium speaks loudest to me. I haven't painted, sculpted or worked in pastels since I was in my early 20's but the exhibit made me realize how much I've missed it. No masterpieces will be created, but I'll be smiling broadly at the self-medication of it all.